I like Cuphead quite a bit. While the the randomized enemy shot patterns and confusing button layout can make things frustrating, I’m enjoying my time with what I believe is an incredibly polished and artistically jaw-dropping experience. It’s a net positive for me.
Unfortunately, because this is the gaming industry, we can never have a game be good and that’s the end of it. There always has to be some sort of awful caveat. This time it’s fans using the game as a jumping off point to attempt to discredit the entire games journalism industry by painting them as inept. However, in doing so, they demonstrate just how inept they themselves are at criticizing the industry.
Author’s Note: These opinions do not reflect Heavy as a whole. Also, when criticizing Cuphead fans I only refer to a subset of Cuphead fans, not all of them.
It all started when Dean Takahashi uploaded a video for VentureBeat in which he plays Cuphead for 26 minutes… badly. Takahashi even admits that he’s bad at the game, with the first sentence of his article reading “I suck at Cuphead.” Honestly, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s a beautiful comedy of errors. I love the moments when Takahashi buts his head against a wall in the tutorial, stops to try and piece everything together, gets on the platform to make his climatic leap, only to completely miss the jump.
Unfortunately for some Cuphead fans, it wasn’t a thing of beauty.
Ian Miles Cheong, himself a games journalist, took the video as proof of the ineptitude of games journalists. This would lead to many fans of the game piling on scorn on the games journalism industry based on the video. The scorn would only continue on after the game’s release.
An article on Polygon asking if exclusion is a valid design choice as well as an article by Laura Kate Dale on Kotaku UK explaining why she found Cuphead’s difficulty infuriating rather than fun were especially targeted. Meanwhile, this video from GameSpot explaining why Cuphead’s difficulty makes it so good is unscathed.
I can understand where the concern is coming from. You want a journalist to talk with authority on subjects no matter what beat they’re assigned to. Much like you wouldn’t trust any weirdo to perform heart surgery on you, you wouldn’t trust someone who’s never touched a game to comment on the industry. But since criticizing games can be so subjective, a debate inevitably starts about whether or not journalists are doing their jobs properly.
But the thing is that you don’t have to be superb at video games to have a job in games journalism and to be good at it. All you really need is good writing, research, and interpersonal communications skills as well as the ability to apply those skills efficiently. Writers hone their craft for years before committing to a professional career, not only developing their writing abilities but researching gaming trends and how other journalists cover the industry. Some even try their hand at creating their own games just to get a feel for game design and development (by the way, I recommend you check out Dale’s Acceptance). Whether it’s telling the success story of a developer, calling out troubling practices by game publishers, or even just telling you how to defeat a tough boss, you need a good writing and research ability to accomplish that. Even if you’re a fighting game champion, you’re not setting foot in games journalism if you write like a fish.
But the real problem is not that people accusing games journalism of being bad at their jobs, but that their accusations are so weak and reductive.
People don’t use multiple examples of journalists being inept at their jobs. All they do is point to one example and apply it to games journalism as a whole. As Game Revolution writes, you can’t just take one or two gameplay videos of a journalists playing a game badly and apply that to all game journalists. Those are just a few of the thousands of writers out there in an increasingly diverse industry.
PewDiePie’s recent video is a shining example of this. All he does is read off headlines talking about Cuphead’s difficulty and set it to sappy music. He also said he trusts critics to review movies because “that’s their job” but he doesn’t trust critics to review games because they’re not good at them. PewDiePie points to one article calling for an optional “skip boss fight” button and then says that all journalists want the feature. To be fair, he does explain that Cuphead isn’t made for a wide audience and doesn’t have to be, but he also says that he doesn’t care if his friend is bad at games. But I guess it’s a problem if a game journalist is bad at a game.
By reducing your criticism to just repeating headlines and making blind accusations, you rob the journalists of their perspective on the issue. As Dale writes in response to PewDiePie mocking her headline, her article explains that she really enjoys hard games, but she found Cuphead tough for the wrong reasons – reasons she outlined in detail in the article. She also said that she’s allowed to not enjoy a hard game, even though she beat it.
What this whole debacle really boils down to is that some people with authority on the subject over you didn’t like certain parts of a game you thought was perfect. Sorry, but it’s our job to tell you everything you need to know about the industry, warts and all. It’s our job to call out and criticize things that may negatively impact games because holding those things accountable will ultimately lead to a better industry. It’s not our job to regurgitate your thoughts and opinions back at you and it’s certainly not our job to be perfect at the games we talk about.
I’m not saying that games journalism is perfect. In fact, it’s ultimately healthy for the journalism industry if our readers double check and call out our mistakes or any shady happenings (because we sure don’t need another Brash Games). Journalists make mistakes all the time and any journalist worth their salt would immediately correct them and apologize.
But you can’t hold the journalism industry accountable for any alleged inadequacies or hypocrisies if your justifications are inadequate and hypocritical. There’s a debate to be had on whether or not Cuphead is difficult in the right ways, but that debate can only happen if both sides are willing to present the evidence and nuance necessary for a discussion. If you don’t, then your whole stake in this argument has no leg to stand on.
And frankly, you forfeited the ability for people to take you seriously a long time ago by implying that your self-worth is tied to whether or not you’re good at a video game.